The first time I went to Jamial Iman was probably in late 2001 or early 2002. Damascus was still like it had been for hundreds of years: sleepy, still traditional, a haven for students of knowledge. There was the odd backpacker tourist, the fullbright scholars, the french students, soas came every year; but still no one knew English, no one catered to the ‘ajaanib’ foreigners yet. Being a Quran or Arabic student was still a status of respect. You needed to know someone to come here because Syria was so closed off. A legacy of the stranglehold of dictatorship, there were no foreign businesses, no McDonalds, no KFC, no Body shop. Foreign imports like a snickers bar or pepsi were smuggled in through Jordan and hidden under the counters. It wasn’t unusual to see cars decades old. There were still narrow streets covered with vines of honeysuckle, outdoor cafes, a street full of 15th century madrasas, hidden maqams of righteous scholars of old. Still old covered markets that went back a thousand years that the natives still shopped at. Still fruit and vegetable markets, fresh bread straight from big clay ovens under the stairs for 5 liras. The impact of 9/11 had yet to reach their shores.
Students from all over the world flocked here. They were British, Malaysian, American, African, Australian, Swedish, French. They filled the halls of the University of Damascus, they enrolled in Abou Nour Institute, they hired private tutors and rented old apartments in Rukn ad-Deen with other students of knowledge. They filled the internet cafes and went to the one or two English only darses in town. They ate the local snacks with odd names, ate pizzas made from ketchup from A&M Pizza happily, excitedly tried out their new Arabic in bargaining in the souks. They sought to learn Arabic and Islam in a pure and traditional environment untouched by the outside world. I was one of them.
Our Syrian friends helped us. They helped us get the apartments, they changed our money for us, they invited us for dinner. The Syrian people were just so innocent and generous and kind. You only had to mention to someone at a bus stop you were a foreigner and they would immediately invite you to come to their house right then. The sister shaikhas would come to your house to teach you tajweed and never ask for anything. The hospitality and openess of the Syrian people to us students of knowledge can’t even be put into words. It was a beautiful time and a beautiful place. It is hard to describe and understand all this, it had to be experienced.
It was one of my brother’s friends who took us. He was so happy to bring us to the best, most modern Dars in Damascus. Shaikh Buti had almost a cult like following, but it wasn’t about him, it was about the knowledge. His students were not like ISNA goers or the sisters wearing designer jilbabs to London Islamic events. They were everyday people, young teachers, students going to university, housewives, couples, even taxi drivers, and of course the serious students of knowledge, native and foreign. They loved that he talked about modern things in an Islamic way. The sisters wore their maunteau blue coats with speck free white hijabs. Many we met were also Hafizas, Tajweed experts and evem memorizers of Bukhari. Our friend joked that when someone wanted to get married in Damascus, they would send their mother to the women’s side of this class to find a good girl for him. The sisters had a big upstairs area with closed-circuit tv of the shaikh. On this occasion he was talking about an article about something in a Western newspaper someone had brought him. I only understood maybe 30% of what he was saying at this time, but even as a new student of Arabic I could see he had an amazing way of speaking Fusha. He was not a charismatic speaker as such, but he was one with a lot of knowledge and way of saying things. He was probably in his 70s at this time, a little frail, thin and wiry, but always sitting on the floor with a book in front of him.
After the class we would pray, and then you would see hundreds of people streaming from the Mosque going home. This is how popular this Islamic Dars was, that it was an actual “event” in Damascus every Thursday night.
I can’t look at pictures of the carnage in the Masjid, of blood soaked into the carpets where worshipers had just been putting their heads in prostration, of body parts strewn across the Mosque. I know I, along with every student of knowledge in the world, is in a state of shock and mourning. What can be more sacred in our Deen?? A shaikh giving a lesson in a mosque, with eager worshipers, surrounded by angels. Truly, for them there is no better way to die.
No one has taken responsibility for this heinous act, each side blaming the other, each side, amazingly mourning this great scholar. Yes, he may have been a staunch supporter of the regime, or he may not have been. Yet thousands of miles away on social networks immediately Muslims started calling Shaikh Buti names, saying he had finally been ‘exposed’ and that they hoped he would be in Hell with ‘that dog’ Bashar. Really? How does someone walk into a Mosque with all these beautiful worshipers, with a Shaikh that has spent over 5 decades learning, teaching and doing Dawah for Islam and kill him and them in this way. How can any politics justify this? How can someone do that and claim any amount of faith? It is how I know we are living at the ends of time. Where Fitnah will be so rife, that people will kill and be killed, and neither will know why.
I mourn for the worshipers at Jamial Iman and their Shaikh, I mourn for the people of Damascus and Syria and most of all I mourn for the Damascus I knew.